APT on Nussbaum

by Henry Farrell on June 8, 2011

The new “Association for Political Theory blog”:http://aptvrg2011.blogspot.com/ is running a roundtable on Martha Nussbaum’s _ Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities_ at the moment. From the “first post:”:http://aptvrg2011.blogspot.com/2011/06/hi-apt-vrgers-while-attempting-to.html

bq. I agree with pretty much everything Martha Nussbaum is saying. She’s preaching to the academic-robed choir in which I’m a full-throated member. Most days these days I share her alarmist mood regarding cutbacks in the humanities and the liberal arts overall. … But I must if I must say: the book, too often, bores me. I read certain passages, they sound like buzzwordy boilerplate, they sound like declaimed mini-lectures, they sound like cut-and-paste clip-jobs from longer Nussbaum tomes, they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over. … It’s too preachy. Its form of presentation is didactic, not Socratic, even as it explicitly celebrates Socratic interactions. … After a few head scratches, I found myself recoiling at such lines as “The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance” (p. 2) or that a humanities-educated person approaches problems as a “citizen of the world” (p. 7). … I would never get away with that missionary language in a small seminar of sly undergraduates (they would mock: what’s the difference between a world citizen and an intergalactic one?).

This is not a unique perception – George Scialabba has a “lovely review”:http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1999/10/cultivating-humanity-a-classic.html of a similar Nussbaum text from a decade or so ago, demonstrating that she has been apotheosized into that ineffable blandness which is usually reserved for cross-university faculty taskforces and other such higher entities. Myself, I’ve always been reminded of the description of President Robbins in Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0226393755/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217153&creative=399349&creativeASIN=0226393755.

bq. About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the president of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs, and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers – that gives, even, the typographical errors at the end of the book).

She did write well once, so perhaps better yet to compare this book (which I started, but emphatically failed to finish) to what New York would have looked like, had Bill Murray failed in his mission in _Ghostbusters I_ – a wasteland of gelatinous marshmallow, beneath which the ruins of once tall buildings can vaguely be discerned. I probably shouldn’t be as annoyed as I am by Nussbaum’s bad prose and inability to say anything interesting or original. There is a useful social function in repeating the obvious, again and again, in technocratic language. But it surely doesn’t make for fun reading.